Slow-smoked ribs

Wasn’t the 4th of July, like, a week ago? This summer seems to have blown by faster than any in recent memory, though my globe-trotting lately hasn’t helped. Regardless, with a few more days of near-90’s in the forecast, I will happily use the long weekend ahead as one last excuse for cramming every last bit of summer in, including one last batch of ribs on the grill.

Pretty pink smoke ring

As much as I’ve used my grill over the past two summers, these ribs marked the first time I’ve ever actually slow-smoked meat and I’ve been kicking myself for taking so long to do it. I have my favorite ribs I’ve made for years, since before I even had any outdoor space to grill them, but these…these are my new go-to when I want to show off.

What you'll need

Here’s the thing: Chicago has so many great restaurants, high-end to dive, and a lot that are known for good barbecue, but, to be honest, I’ve never had any barbecue that’s blown me away. Some has been good, but more often than not it’s been a game of too much chew or not enough, drenched in sauce or none at all, tastes like a burnt log or not even smoked.

These ribs are what I’ve been craving, the ones Goldilocks would have picked as “just right” if ribs had been the main course instead of a bowl of porridge. They have just enough pull without being fall-off-the-bone (a quality that’s completely over-rated when it comes to ribs, by the way), a good amount of flavor from the smoke and the rub but you can still actually tell that you’re eating pork, a little sweet and spice and the best little burnt bits from a final brush sauce and a quick blast of heat from a hot grill.

Yummy
Rub bark, much better than bark on a tree

For better or worse, when the end of summer is in sight I inevitably feel like I’m running out of time–time for beach lounging, porch sitting, eating all the peaches and corn and berries and tomatoes, cooking (and grilling) all my summer favorites, time just to be in the sun. I know it would be better to focus on the things I managed to do in the past four months–planted and grew a garden; taught a class; traveled to Barcelona, Paris, London, Boston, Cleveland, New York; stocked my freezer, cupboard, and liquor cabinet.

Yes, the bottom rack is a little overdone

That said, I’m writing this sitting in the sun on my porch, a pot of tomato sauce with herbs from my garden simmering on my stove (at least some of which is destined for the pizza dough that’s headed for the grill shortly), a big bowl of fresh gazpacho ready for lunch, peaches and plums and fresh corn and tomatoes and watermelon all ready for eating, and a batch of those ribs on the very near horizon. When September starts like this, I really can’t complain.

Slow-Smoked Ribs
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August Garden Update

An hour left to August, so how about a very last-minute update on how my garden did this month?

Things started small…

Starting small in August

Peas were pulled, tomatoes and tomatillos started hitting their stride.

August garden
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Tomato plot

I got my first hot pepper!

My first red pepper!

Those few little tomatoes turned into lots of goodies to harvest mid-month.

Tomato season
August harvest

I’ve spotted this guy hanging out on my tomatoes twice. I think he makes a good little mascot.

A garden friend

As for what’s coming up next, a few weeks ago I planted some end-of-season radishes, sorrel, broccoli raab, and lettuce, though only the radishes seem to have taken (I planted the rest of the seeds today, so we’ll see how it goes). I also let a few things go to seed (some on purpose, some out of laziness); radish seed pods are the prettiest things and I’m excited if I my laziness means I don’t have to buy more seeds next spring!

Paella

You guys. I’m struggling to find the words. Tuesday’s class was the most tangible and immediate validation of my purpose for this blog, for nearly everything I do involving food: to give people the confidence to try something new in the kitchen, to show that cooking doesn’t have to be this big, intimidating, scary thing.

Digging in

At the beginning of the class I asked who had eaten paella–nearly everyone raised their hand. Who’s made paella? One, maybe two hands went up. But by the end, every one of the 24 people in the class (plus the amazing volunteers who cooked the “teacher’s” paella) could say yes, they’ve made (amazingly delicious!) paella. And they could all do it again, too!

Watching each group proudly unveil the beautiful meals they created at the end of class, the impressed comments from their classmates–I wanted to give them all a hug and say “Look! You made that!” Everyone sitting together to share conversation and food (and wine, there were some amazing sangrias at the table) had me mentally shouting “YES. This is what’s it’s about.” (I mostly restrained myself on the shouting and hugging; I only had one sangria–a much-appreciated glass beautifully prepared and with a pretty little lemon twist by one of the groups.)

Beautiful!
Saying hi to my first class
Lindsay arranging the final dishes

There were so many moments like that during the class, but this might have topped them all–one of the students came up to me at the end and told me she was really excited to try this at home. Then she said, “Honestly, I’ve had a paella pan sitting in the back of my closet for years and I’ve never used it. Now I have a reason!” Again I had to restrain myself from becoming a crazy hugging person, but I did tell her, “Yes!! You can totally do this!!”

Happy students
Ready to get started

And the comments on the feedback forms–I want to frame them, and not for my own ego. The best comments said that this intimidating dish was actually easy, that they tried or learned something new. Two of my favorite moments from the class were showing everyone a whole cuttlefish and walking around to let people smell smoked paprika, and it’s so rewarding to know that the class got something out of those moments too.

And I learned something in preparing for this class! I’ve never cooked cuttlefish before this week, but I love the stuff now (it’s like calamari, but thicker so less chance it will overcook). I added some to a salad last night and it was amazing.

Talking

For me, personally, there was a moment too. As anxious as I was in the days leading up to the class, as soon as I got to the kitchen and started setting up–it’s cliché, but I felt my nerves melt away. I know my way around a kitchen and a cutting board, I know how to cook.

Beyond the actual cooking portion of it, the years of practice I’ve had running web presentations at my day job were also surprisingly helpful. The speaking came easy because I knew the story I wanted to tell. I knew how to handle questions and figure out if it bore repeating to the whole group; I could troubleshoot my slightly burned garlic or pans that were heating unevenly without panicking. There are definitely things that will improve with practice (like actually remembering I have a pan on the stove before the garlic burns), but for a first time, it couldn’t have possibly gone any better.

Paul, one of the excellent volunteers I had helping me

I also cannot say enough good things about the volunteers who did so much of the prep for the class (roasting the red peppers to steaming the seafood to cutting the cuttlefish and all the meat), who pretty much cooked “my” paella when I was busy teaching, and washed all the dishes. They (and Lindsay and Becky from PGP, who also get credit for most of the pictures) made the class happen without me feeling frantic. If you have a kitchen skill you want to share, Peterson Garden Project is the place to do it.

Making sangria for the volunteers

I’m already brainstorming more class ideas (and I want to do this one again too!) and can’t wait to share more with all of you.

Salud!

Paella Continue reading

Pan con Tomate

(Only a few spots left for my paella class on August 11! Sign up here or get a sneak peek at the class here.)

Why does bruschetta get all the toast-topped-with-tomatoes-and-olive-oil love? Nothing against half of my heritage, but the Spanish version, pan con tomate, deserves some attention too.

Pan con tomate

Tomatoes seem to be taking their sweet old time to get in gear this year, but with one lone tomato hanging out on my counter and having eaten my fill of tomato and lettuce sandwiches (for now anyways, I’m still planning a grand BLT with everything either grown or made by me. Yes, including the bacon and the mayonnaise), pan con tomate seemed like a perfect option. It helps that I’m obviously on a Spanish food kick lately.

Tomatoes, bread, garlic, oil, salt

Everyone’s pretty familiar with bruschetta at this point–toasted bread (where bruschetta gets its name) rubbed with garlic and usually topped with diced tomatoes, sometimes basil, and drizzled with olive oil. That’s the idea anyways. The concept has become so diffused that it seems like anything on a piece of bread shows up as bruschetta on a menu or in a Google search. Pan con tomate, on the other hand, at least requires tomatoes to be part of the equation.

Toasting
Bread on the grill is the best

Instead of dealing with my complete inability to ever keep the pieces of tomato from falling onto my clothes or the floor when I eat bruschetta (or requiring me to use a knife and fork, which is equally awkward), pan con tomate has you rub a tomato in all its juicy splendor right into the crusty bread. That is, of course, after a clove of raw garlic has been rubbed all over the toast that would, in any other application, tear up the inside of your mouth but instead grabs onto tiny bits of garlic. Rubbing the tomato into the bread is the messy part in this version, but it’s kind of fun. And at least more of the tomato has a fighting chance of getting to my mouth.

Rubbing the garlic
Mushing the tomato

Think this sounds like a recipe for soggy bread? Well…you’re not wrong, but if you toast it enough (or use day-old or slightly stale bread, which this is ideal for), the tomato juices soften the top and edges enough so that you aren’t risking a mouthful of tiny cuts with each bite. The inside of the bread retains some welcome texture and chew and, unlike bruschetta, which is more often just a vehicle for its toppings, pan con tomate actually melds the bread, garlic, and tomato into one delicious bite.

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Top it with a generous drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkle of flaky salt, add a gin and tonic (I saw more of these than of glasses of sangria in Barcelona), throw in a sunset view, and you’ve got about all I need on a summer night (with apologies to anyone who talked to me after dinner. Only in hindsight did it occur to me that I essentially ate several raw cloves of garlic.). Ok, maybe a salad or some slices of good Spanish cheese, ham, a spicy dried, cured meat…I’m sorry, where were we? Right, tomato bread.

Pan con Tomate, or Tomato Bread Continue reading

Paella in Barcelona (and I’m teaching a class!)

Remember that Barcelona trip I took back in April? There were honestly so many amazing things about it that I’ve struggled to put them all into words, but considering I’m teaching a class about part of the trip in two weeks, I figured now was a good time to share at least one story!

Paella, ready for eatingNice view

For the first vacation I’ve taken completely on my own, I left most of my time open for wandering, but I wanted a few things planned to give me a little direction. That’s how I spent three hours learning to cook paella from an amazing teacher in her home with a dozen other eager (and hungry) fellow students from all over the world. It was by far one of the best parts of the trip and one I would do again in a heartbeat. (Update: Want to know how the class turned out or looking for a good paella recipe? Check it out!) Continue reading

July Garden Update

After the rainiest June in Chicago, everything green basically exploded in my garden, though that did present a challenge for my tomatoes. This picture is actually 3 weeks old at this point, but it’s still quite a change from my the last one I shared from the beginning of June! I’ll update with a photo of the garden currently tonight.

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Elderflower Obsessed

Of the many things I love about my weekly farmers market trips, discovering new ingredients to play with might be the best of them all. Those discoveries led to my not-so-slight obsession with damson plums; my incessant crunching on a vegetable that most resembles something from a 1950s outer space comic book, kohlrabi; and the displacement of arugula as my favorite not-lettuce salad green by the lemon-y, spinach-y flavor of sorrel (which now also tops my list to plant in my garden in spring). One of the best discoveries so far this year, though, was a basket of these beautiful, and beautifully fragrant, flowers. Forget damsons, this year’s obsession? Elderflowers.

Handful of flowers

Elderflowers are the flowers used to flavor one of my favorite liqueurs, St.Germain. (The guy selling them kept telling me and a fellow curious buyer that’s its most commonly used to make a delicious and healthy tea. Personally, I like the liquor idea better.) Five quarts of flowers and a few half-gallon jars later, I had myself some projects.

If you, like me, are unfamiliar with elderflowers…you’re actually probably more familiar than you think. At least around Chicago, elderberry bushes are surprisingly common decorative shrubs. They’re what end up staining the sidewalks (and, more often than not, my car) dark purple from dropped berries come mid-summer. But before the berries, flowers. Incredibly sweet-smelling, almost cloyingly so, delicate sprays of creamy white flowers.

Elderflowers
A little bit of Googling led me to two ideas that seemed like good places to start: elderflower simple syrup and elderflower-infused vodka (essentially the starting point for making my own elderflower liqueur). Some citrus in the form of lemon and grapefruit (and a little extra citric acid for good measure), a pretty pink variation with some extra juicy strawberries, and I’m pretty much set for all my homemade soda and fancy cocktail needs this summer (and fall, winter, and next spring).

Elderflower syrup

The syrup is dead simple and utterly delicious. The grapefruit and lemon add a little bit of tart to balance out the could-be-too-flowery flavor of the steeped blossoms, but the flavor is bright, sweet summer all the way. The booze is still brewing, but, after I strain the flowers and add a good amount of sugar this week, I anticipate lazily watching more than a few summer sunsets under its influence. (And if you have any flowers left that you simply can’t cram into any other projects, elderflowers make very pretty ice cubes to fancy up your porch drinking.)

Elderflower soda

Elderflower Syrup and Elderflower Liqueur Continue reading

Mid-July Busy-ness

It’s an unfortunate coincidence that the months I have the most to talk about–farmers markets and grilling and all the cooking, really, and gardens and, lately, traveling every which way–also happen to be the same months that I have the least amount of time to write about any of said things because I’m…well, farmers market-ing and grilling and cooking and gardening and traveling (though that last one is the worst excuse as I keep telling myself Internet-free plane time is the best time for writing. Too bad it’s also great time for watching movies, reading a book, or staring out the window).

Which is to say, a lot’s been going on since I last posted, eek, nearly a month ago: infusing booze with flowers, making my first slow-smoked ribs, keeping my garden alive and (mostly) thriving, spending a week in England. You know, little stuff like that. Plus I still want to share my trip to Barcelona and a supremely foodie trip to Boston (including the best restaurant I’ve eaten at in recent memory and the inspiration for this summer’s quest to perfect pizza on the grill).

It’s all coming though! It may be with fewer, less pretty pictures, maybe slightly less cohesive words, but perfection is the enemy of the good, or, at least for me lately, the enemy of posting anything at all.

In the meantime, have a picture of my new obsession that might actually be better than my long-time favorite.

The BEST ribs

Spice-Rubbed Beer-Steamed Wood-Smoked Chicken

Usually when I share a recipe, I try to photograph important steps along the way or some part of the process that strikes me as particularly pretty. Trust me when I say this is the only picture of this recipe you need:

Golden brown and delicious

If you’re looking for the summer equivalent of fall and winter’s roast chicken, like smoked things, and have some beer hanging around, make this. This was one of those random dinner experiments that turned out miles beyond what I had hoped for. I was trying to make beer-can chicken, but my grill lid isn’t high enough to have the chicken stand up, so…I took the beer out of the can and put it under the chicken instead. And figured, what the heck, soak some wood chips in the beer while I’m at it. It looked gorgeous and tasted even better. I may have snuck a wing off this guy while I waited for my asparagus to grill.

I’ve made this with two different spice mixtures (a BBQ rub and a jerk spice rub) and two different kinds of beer (honestly just ones that have been kicking around my kitchen for far long–yes, I’m also that mythical person who has leftover wine). I’m planning to try this with cider next time and a spice blend like baharat or zatar. There are pretty much infinite variations and it can be as simple or as adventurous as you like. For a simple summer dinner (and great leftovers) with minimal prep, though, this cannot be beat.

Spice-Rubbed Beer-Steamed Wood-Smoked Chicken Continue reading

June in the Garden

I’ve mentioned my garden a few times this spring, but I think it’s finally settled (and green) enough to share a few pictures and talk about my plans this year (which, if they’re anything like last year, lasted all of a month before I realized my garden had its own plan).

Happylettuce

Here’s what came back from last year:

  • Chives (obviously), plus a few lonely garlic chives
  • Borage (I’m kind of afraid of this plant right now. I think it might grow legs and prowl the streets at night looking for small animals to eat. But the flowers are pretty and it’s good in a Pimm’s Cup!)
  • A few lettuce that I neglected for so long last summer that they actually went to seed and grew new lettuces.
  • Two strawberry plants. I had five last year, everyone says they’re nearly impossible to kill, other gardeners’ plots are completely overtaken with them. I killed more than half of mine. At least my chives came back?

Here’s what I planted as baby plants, a mix of stuff from the Peterson Garden Project sale, some vendors at the farmers market, and a local garden center.

  • Tomatoes. Oh, do I have tomatoes. Let’s see:
  • Tomatillos, purple and yellow (so excited for both of these!!)
  • Ground cherries
  • Peppers: Carmen (sweet), Poblano (mild), Maule’s Red Hot (spicy)
  • Dinosaur kale
  • Strawberries. I give up on doing strawberries in my garden, but they’ll be nice as a hanging basket! I’ll stick with stocking up at the farmers market and just appreciate the novelty of plucking one or two while I’m enjoying the sunset view from my porch.
  • All the herbs. In addition to two kinds of chives, I have oregano, parsley, rosemary, basil (regular and Thai, if the Thai one survives falling over in the car and breaking off most of its stem), bay, thyme, cilantro, epazote, lemon verbena, pineapple mint, and strawberry mint. The mints, epazote, and bay are all in pots on my porch, and the rest were big enough that I split them and have some in my garden to get big and bushy and some on my porch for quick access.

May 24, post planting June 7, getting greener And this is what I’m planting from seed:

  • Snap peas
  • Mixed lettuce, half the amount I planted last year
  • Mixed chard
  • Mixed radishes, mostly French Breakfast, a few purple, and some others that looked interesting. Watermelon radishes are getting planted in fall, a mistake I realized too late last year.
  • Dragon Tongue beans, which I’m inordinately excited about. They grew so fast!
  • Green beans.
  • Cucumber…maybe. I might do this in a pot on my porch this year, since I only want little cucumbers and can let them vine up my porch railings.

All the herbs. And tomatoes.

Considering all the rain we’ve been getting, everything is growing along quite happily (except some things that are none too happy with all the water. Or the sudden cold snap. I’m looking at you, tomatillos, basil, and rosemary. And I think my rosemary has powdery mildew. Boo.).